Ok, this will be the finish no matter how long it takes; and it will be long but I have to move on to other things. Coming straight out of Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Ol’ing Part 9, I want to shift gears. Becacuse most of what I covered over the past two days had mostly to do with why the sport is as small as it is: a lack of facilities, coaching, incentives and, ultimately, interest.
But in that way, OL’ing is not terribly different than a lot of marginalized sports in this country that exist under literally identical conditions of few athletes, no access, etc. And yet in some we succeed brilliantly; in others we medal sporadically (even one of our rowers won in Beijing and that sport is as niche as it gets). Clearly if all the problems with OL’ing were related to the issues of the last two days it would cut universally across all niche sports and it does not. There must be other factors at play and that’s the topic of today.
Because irrespective of all of the factors that exist to keep OL’ing no more than a niche sport in this country, there has always been a small group of elite lifters in this country, who despite the title of this series, have performed to varying degrees at the highest level, placing Top 10 (with a couple of guys coming close to cracking the medal stand, Barnett’s 4th in 1996 being the closest but I’ll come back to that below).
These are the folks already in the sport so the discussion of the past 2 days doesn’t apply to them; they are the ones who have devoted their lives to the sport and reached at least a high enough level to make the big show to see what, if anything might be holding them back.
Is It Simply a Lack of Talent?
Perhaps the simplest answer to the problem with the elites that America has is that they simply may not have the talent to reach the highest level. This is actually the place I am really in no place to comment. Certainly, other big sports in this country do tend to draw top strength/power athletes for reasons I discussed at length and this is certainly part of it.
Even the niche sports that we have succeeded in such as cycling, swimming and speed skating aren’t sports where the folks going into those sports would have chosen much else. It’s at least worth noting that all three have more of an endurance bent (where to a degree you can overcome genetics with sheer grinding volumes of work) and this does separate them from OL’ing with it’s specific set of physiological and technical requirements. But, overall, the presence of the big three and track and field doesn’t seem to have explicitly kept other sports from at least occasionally reaching the medal stand and it’s a bit hard to see where US OL’ing would be held back specifically by this.
The same non-team sport middle-class types who seem to get involved in things like cycling, swimming and speed skating seem to have been the major players in OL’ing in this country and, again, it’s hard to see that they would explicitly lack the potential talent to succeed. Though this may simply be an issue of numbers; as I’ve mentioned at the highest levels of sport you need a lot of factors, physiological, etc. to come together and the handful of folks entering the sport may simply be insufficient.
This is specially true given the amazing numbers that are being produced by other countries; it’s not even an issue of a single country producing all the top lifters; there are a solid half-dozen or more countries producing top lifters. Just as it was in European cycling, the few Americans are competing with a depth that is hard to overcome no matter what. America has never done the testing, selection, etc. that other countries did, nor did we have the sheer number of people to throw at the sport. So this is possible but hard to prove either way and, once again, I’m in no real position to comment here.
Let’s assume for the time being that this isn’t the issue and see what else might be going on with America’s elite lifters, mainly here I’ll focus on factors that others have commented on or suggested ‘fixes’ to to solve the problem.
Out Lifters Simply Don’t Work Hard Enough
This was the first suggestion made by Hoffman when the US started slipping in the 60’s, that the Europeans simply worked harder than American lifters. At least similar ideas have been trotted out more recently but I’m not sure I buy it. Certainly in the 60’s it’s arguable that American lifters might have been coasting a bit because they were so dominant; I think it’s more likely that they were just putting their effort into the wrong things. They were focusing on maximum strength and such when the Europeans were staring to focus on constant technique practice and speed strength. But I doubt they were doing anything but working their brains out.
And I’d make the same argument now for this simple reason: no athlete who reaches the International level, even if they never reach the truly highest level and medal, gets there by being lazy. I discussed this in detail in the Talent vs. Work Series and I’d refer readers there. But all athletes at that level are intensely driven to succeed and will pour blood, sweat and tears into their sport. I just don’t buy that American lifters are inherently less driven to succeed anymore than I buy that white sprinters in high school aren’t driven; they work just as hard, they simply can’t compete with the West African blacks.
Our Lifters Have Lost Belief in Their Ability to Win
Another argument is one of motivation, this is something that Tommy Kono has gone on about for years and discusses in detail in both of his books. His argument is that as Americans started to slip in the standings that their belief in their ability to succeed started to slip.
Along with this appears to have come somewhat of a ‘culture of mediocrity’ in the sport where Americans simply settled for what they were capable of producing without hoping or aiming for more. Certainly belief is huge in sport (as I discussed when I talked about Kenyan distance runners) and this could be contributing. Because while believing you win won’t guarantee it, believing you’re going to lose pretty much does.
When being American National Champion puts you at the bottom of the leader board internationally, it’s hard to get past that. And there does appear to have been some toing and froing with qualification standards in National Championships that may be related to this.
But OL’ing is a sport that is pretty damn objective, you can lift what you can lift which is what you can lift. It’s not a sport where you can suddenly make some monstrous improvement on the platform when you haven’t been doing it in the gym (nor is it a sport like running or cycling where tactics and other random factors can take someone to the front where you might not have expected it). OL’ing is a pretty pure sport in this regard.
And simply, if you’re only capable of 180kg and the top 3 in your class open with 190kg, it’s not as if belief comes into it. Life still isn’t a Rocky movie and the objective nature of the sport makes reality reality. And given the driven nature of athletes in all sports, I still have trouble accepting that Ol’er would just be giving up because of a lack of previous results. That’s not consistent with the psychological profile of athletes, certainly not those who pursue something like OL’ing in the first place.
Our lifters are capable of what they are capable of and that’s what they are capable of. Most athletes believe that they can succeed if they work hard enough and while it certainly can’t help confidence to know that your best day still puts you behind everybody else, I’m not convinced this is as big a deal as some make it. I could be wrong. Of course, all of that is predicated on being allowed or willing to push the limits and here there may be a real problem with the culture of weightlifting in this country.
They Don’t Push the Envelope
I do think it’s worth mentioning that there does seem to be a long-standing, how do I put this, hesitancy to really push the envelope in Olympic lifting among Americans although it’s hard to tell if this is a coaching issue or an athlete issue. Charniga discusses this in Part 6 of his farticle series how lifters even during our heydey wouldn’t take their final attempt and go for a world record, presumably ‘saving’ it for another day. Why is less clear, whether it was out of fear of injury or simply not seeing the need when they were so far ahead, I just don’t know.
Charniga contrasts this to athletes from other countries routinely starting with weights far in excess of what they need to win. And who routinely take all of their attempts to just set record after record (note that not everyone did this, Alexeev was famous for only beating his own world record by small amounts; but realize that he got paid every time he set a new world record. He was just being crafty by allowing himself to break it over and over again).
It’s worth mentioning that in some training systems, notably the Bulgarian based ones, lifters are routinely training with or above their world records on a daily basis. I’ll come back to training in a second but there is no doubt that many countries just push and push and push even in training and it’s possible that this is pushing them to higher levels (along with regular competition because NOTHING brings an athlete to a higher level than competition; you just can’t generate the same intensity under any other conditions). Of course, injuries and destroyed lifters also come out of that system but that’s the price some are willing to pay to win.
Perhaps that’s a problem, America, for whatever reason isn’t willing to push it’s lifters to the point of near destruction with the kind of training needed to succeed at the highest levels; although what we do to other athletes (think football) would argue against that on a cultural level.
I think it’s more likely that we just don’t have the numbers to take that kind of approach in the sport and have anybody left when the smoke clears. It’s ok to destroy people when you have thousands to throw away; not so much when you have a couple of hundred and can’t lose any. If there is any conservatism in how Americans approach the sport, it may simply come out of not having the lifters to sacrifice to the beast that is elite level OL training.
And certainly there does still seem to be an element of this hesitancy in OL’ing. I recall during Beijing, this may have been on a blog of one of the female lifters how she was basically forbidden by her coach to take anything but fairly conservative attempts that he knew she could make. And on every level this makes no sense whatsoever.
Now, I’m all for being somewhat conservative in training, hurting yourself doing something heroic there is kind of stupid. But at the highest level of the sport, in a situation where a lifter is going to come in 15th place anyhow, what logic is there in not allowing them to go for it all on the Olympic stage with nothing to lose? That I don’t get and simply can’t understand.
I think I heard that the coach felt it was important for Americans to demonstrate our consistency by having the lifters make all their attempts. Maybe when you’re in a situation with no chance of winning, consistency is the best you can shoot for. Again, I don’t know although I wish I could know what the coach was thinking when he handed down such a stupid ass decree.
But this all sort of leads me to the next topic because while the above is certainly possibly part of the case, I still don’t think it’s all of it (and mind you, fixing it would still require getting the US to where it could perform so it’s a huge catch-22 situation. If US lifters are being held back by their belief that they can’t do well, then they won’t ever do well enough to break that belief). But the final paragraph does point to a potential issue having to to do with coaching and training of our top lifters.
Because if the talent is presumably there, and there’s not some weird psychological block holding our lifters back, that doesn’t leave much as the target of the problems with our top lifters or why they aren’t getting where they need to be. The first thing I want to talk about is the training/coaching issue although this gets embroiled with another important issue which I’ll talk about first.
Support for athletes encompasses a lot of different factors ranging from financial, housing, coaching, therapy, etc. And while it’s true that the majority of Olympic lifters train without much in the way of support, the fact is also that not all of them do. Because once athletes reach the top level of the smallest niche sports, they are often given the opportunity to go to the Olympic Training Center and enter the resident athlete program.
Said program provides support, housing, food (amusing story: the last time I visited the OTC there was a video asking resident athletes what the best part was and they all said “Having food cooked for me.”), training and coaching, sports science, etc.
Mind you, athletes have to reach a certain level (usually unsupported during the entire time) to get into the resident program but it does exist. Certainly it’s nothing like the ‘professional athlete’ status that most Eastern Europeans train under but it’s better than nothing. Once athletes have proven themselves as being worthy, they can get support to hopefully reach the next level.
And over the history of its existence, it’s basically failed to produce much, certainly we’ve had some decent finishes at the Olympic level (I haven’t really taken the time to delve into World Championship results) but no medals as I described. For an affluent country with some of the best supposed ‘sports science’ and resources, it sure doesn’t seem to stack up against what small, broke-ass countries are doing with some basic equipment and well trained coaches. This is a place where we’ve got all the tech, but everyone else has the results.
Now, there is no doubt that the OTC program has changed significantly over the years. New coaches are brought in to try and generate results and much of what I’m going to write probably reflects more of the early goings on (much of what I’m going to write comes from Dreschler’s book published in 1998 and doesn’t reflect what is currently going on). I’ve also heard stories coming out of the OTC from various sources, little of which has been positive and much of which gives me some pause.
Because at least for most of it’s history, what happens at the OTC seems to cause more problems for its lifters than it solves (and the overall lack of results points to this) and this probably stems from a few different issues. One of them is the decentralized nature of this country and the fact that every coach has his own way of doing things (in countries with more centralized coaching systems, everyone is coming from the same philosophical and/or coaching background).
The nature of the OTC is that an athlete who may have been developed by a singular person (their personal coach) for the 5-10 years it took them to reach that level is now handed off to the National coach, a guy who has never worked with the athlete, who doesn’t know who they are, how they respond to training or anything about them.
And, sadly, a lot of coaches have a fairly cookie cutter approach to training, giving it to all the athletes and then assuming that the athlete is the weak link if they don’t respond (this happened ALL the time in speed skating). So the athlete may be thrown into a style or type of training that they have never been exposed to by a coach who doesn’t have the time nor interest to individaulize it and they get injured or what have you. It’s not universal but it certainly happens.
This is compounded with a general fascination of Americans (including athletes and the federations) in certain sports with foreign coaches. US Speedskating was notorious for hiring Dutch coaches for the National team (because the Dutch clearly have skating ‘secrets’) over Americans and USA WL’ing seems to have fallen prey to this to at least some degree. So coaches such as Dragomir Ciroslan (the Ex-Romanian National Coach) are brought in and put in charge of the OTC athletes.
And often don’t realize that our elites lack the years of systematic build-up or the background to handle what their elites did. Stories of athletes at the OTC having their training volumes and frequencied doubled or tripled almost overnight are common and you hear of athletes who developed training 4-5 times/week with their personal coach being destroyed by an Eastern Bloc coach (or ex-athletes) who simply has no concept of training without ‘support’ (many of the coaches from those countries are aghast to hear that they are expected to prepare top athletes without ‘support’; and yes, Virginia, support here means drugs).
I saw this happen in short-track speed skating when USS hired a Korean coach to take over the national team. Now the Koreans are hardcore in short-track, they start as kids and subject their kids to the kind of child abuse that only a Communist country can generate. By the time they are elites, the survivors are handling 6-8 hours of training per day but it took them a decade of selection (leaving destroyed athletes in the wake) to get there. And the hired coach came in and put the American athletes on the exact same program, without recognizing that they hadn’t gone through the buildup. It worked in his country, why shouldn’t it work here? And the athletes were just blown up.
Even when that isn’t the case, American coaches, convinced that there are Eastern European sports secrets latch onto isolated concepts (such as depth jumps which ruined many a career in the 80’s) or training models without understanding them or the context in which they developed (i.e. thousands of athletes put through systematic multi-year training as professional athletes with constant therapy, regeneration and anabolics). They apply the models uncritically to American athletes without that background and just destroy them.
And failing that, you still find coaches, from the old school who are married to what can only be called ‘outdated’ methods of training; older coaches who haven’t kept up with recent developments who are training folks lke they have been for 10-20 years.
Because at least one place where a huge focus has been on the lack of success in American OL’ing is on the training and many have lamented the lack of a true American ‘system’ of training in the sense that other countries had one. Which leads me into a tangent that I wish I could spend more time on but won’t; I’ve provided plenty of resources and this isn’t the place.
On the Training of Elite Olympic Lifters
In one sense, training for the OL’s is simple, there are two competition movements and the goal is to lift the most one time. Like powerlifting, there are a minimal number of biomotor capacities that need to be developed maximally (I’d refer readers to The Sports, Training and Adaptation Continuums) and, in contrast to many other pure strength/power sports, OL’ing is one of the handful of sports where the weight training is the sport.
Historically, Ol’ing training has divided itself into two major camps, simply reflecting the two countries that were producing for the longest and represent the different ‘general’ philosophies of training. Certainly every group has developed it’s own ‘flavor’ of training but there really is only so much you can do differently in the sport given the specialized nature of the activity. And the two main ‘schools’ of training as they are typically delineated and described are the Soviet and Bulgarian methods which I will briefly describe.
Russia vs. Bulgaria: The Brawl to Settle it All
As noted above, these are sort of the two major schools of thought in the sport of OL’ing and I’m only going to look at them in precis to save space. Note that body have generated champions so drawing conclusions about exclusive ‘bestedness’ is misguided. Simply they each have their pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks.
The Soviet system coming out of it’s relatively less centralized system and multi-faceted training approached Ol’ing with a great variety of movements including variations on the Olympic lifts themselves (with much of the competition work being saved for later). The system was based around percentages of maximum and periodization and tended to move from higher volume/lower intensity (which might have meant 6 sets of 3 at 75% not the silly bullshit American interpretation of this with 4 sets of 15 at 75% of max) to lower volume and higher intensity (singles at 90%+) as competition drew nearer. Lots of assistance movements were used to fix weak points and many feel that the Soviet system is applicable to a greater number of lifters because it allows more flexibility in the training.
In contrast Bulgaria under Abadjaev was all specificity all the time. He threw out 99% of the movements Ol’ers had used, using only 6 by the end of his heyday. Periodization was scrapped, he didn’t use percentages (weight adjustments were just flat reductions or increases of 5-20kg below or above maximum) and had his lifters train to a daily maximum (which is NOT the same as attempting your personal maximum daily, a nuance lost on most and which I should write a full article on) and mostly singles (with the occasional double were done).
He pioneered short intense workouts, working on a given lift for 30 minutes before taking a break, the competition lifts (or power versions) were trained in their full version multiple times daily. It’s often felt that this was mainly a way to control his athletes, that the system breaks people down, bores them to tears, injuries are not unheard of when you’re working at max all the time. Mind you, Abadjaev didn’t care, he was going to win at all costs.
For those more familiar with powerlifting training than OL’ing training, the above basically comes down to Westside (tons of variety, don’t practice the full lifts much, fix weak points with special exercises) versus Metal Militia (specific, heavy work all the time and little else).
Which Is Best?
Which system is better? That debate has been raging for 30 years and both have produced champions. Certainly I think that most top teams have moved closer to a Bulgarian system than not. Sports have changed since the Soviet heyday and most have moved to more specificity at competition intensity (and for all I know the Soviet system has changed in recent times, most of what’s available in the literature is older stuff from what they were doing in the 80’s).
It’s safer to say that each system has it’s pros and cons, benefits and drawbacks. I’ll quote Glenn Pendlay from an article he wrote on the topic titled A Russian Perspective on the Bulgarian System, interviewing a former top Soviet lifter:
Do what works. The Russians believe their “system” works for a wider variety of people, and doesn’t produce as many injuries. But they, or at least Ruslev, agrees that the Bulgarian system is the “ideal” for a person with no weak points.
I’d only add that the Soviet system doesn’t seem to work so well if a lifter doesn’t have years under the bar; many find that doing nothing but broken or segmented lifts most of the time doesn’t prepare them for heavier loading in the full movement (many have found the same with Westside even in the relatively less technical powerlifts, the lack of heavy competition work doesn’t prepare them adequately for a heavy competition lift). And the simple fact is that most are training the full competition lifts more and more frequently; for all I know modern Soviet training does too.
The Bulgarian system, at least at it’s full level, requires years of build-up to be survivable in the first place. My friend who trains with Abadjaev notes that his program is far less voluminous than the ‘professional’ program (i.e. what Abadjaev feels is required to succeed at the highest level). My friend is also not using ‘support’ (yes, I am coming back to this).
It’s interesting to note the big swing towards more specificity in training, even in powerlifting with systms like Sheiko, Korte 3X3, Smolov and others which are based around near daily practice of the powerlifts. Mind you, most of the above is somewhat historical even if many modern teams use some variant of the Bulgarian system in today’s era (where all sports have moved to much more specificity of training and away from the variety of the 80’s).
Chinese Sports Secrets
I think it’s worth pointing out that, while very little information is available, the Chinese may have developed an ideal ‘hybrid’ system, eliminating the potential negatives of both the Russian and Bulgarian system while combining their strengths. Not that there is much to be found about their system but they seem to combine daily near maximum lifting in the competition lifts with specific assistance work to focus on weak points (based on the coach’s eye) then supplemented with general bodybuilding work on the premise that a ‘bigger muscle is a potentially stronger muscle’. This type of mixed approach may provide the best of all worlds.
Success Leaves Clues
But the above really only touches the surface, clearly there are a lot of countries doing at least somewhat different things even if most are derived from the above systems of training (simply, there isn’t that much variety to be had) in one fashion or another. But it’s instructive to see if there are any commonalities in the training of elite Olympics lifters; I wasn’t joking at the start of this series with the trite ‘Success Leaves Clues’ phrase.
Because while Americans (athletes and coaches alike) are often obsessed with finding Training Secrets, the secret is often that there is no secret (other than all the factors I’ve been discussing the past 7 weeks); looking at what all elite athletes are doing is often instructive. Here again I’ll let Glenn Pendlay sum it up again quoting from his article.
…[H]ere is how the best are currently training. The minimum training sessions per week that I encountered was 5, maximum 12. Minimum hours spent training per week was about 8, maximum about 18. I did not talk to the Chinese, who I dont doubt top this number. Everyone snatches. Everyone clean and jerks. Everyone squats and front squats. Everyone does power snatches and power cleans. Most do pulls. Many do some sort of pressing or push pressing. This group of exercises makes up most of the work done. Many have some sort of exercise which they do which isnt as widespread, some do jumping exercises, some bench press. A few do some sort of good morning exercise or stiff legged deadlift variation. Some do some variation of back raise, back extension, or Glute Ham raise. In no instance which I encountered did these “extra” exercises make up any sigificant part of the training load. No one does only singles. No one does sets of 10. Most use a variety of reps between 1 and 5. Most do snatches and/or clean and jerks, or some close variation, every workout or almost every workout with significant weights.
And that really does sum it up and the key sentence is really that last one so far as I’m concerned. Because the technical nature of the lifts requires near daily practice in the lifts themselves, with the word ‘significant’ there being an older school term that you can translate as ‘heavy’. The OL’s change significantly when the weights approach max and training with 75-80% really doesn’t prepare lifters to handle max weights. Everything else just supports that goal of endless practice and attempts to improve performance in those lifts. So with that background, is there something wrong with how American lifters are training?
On the Training of Elite American Lifters
Here the completely decentralized nature of our country makes much in the way of discussion problematic. Because outside of the USA Weightlifting coaching certification (which few seem to care about) there is no centralized approach to training. The handful of gyms that do exist all have their own way of going about things. And it’s hard to say how much any of them, mostly run by guys who have been in the iron game for years and years have really kept up with the cutting edge of the sport.
Here I truly am talking out of my own ignorance, I simply don’t know what’s going on outside of what little has been written, articles I’ve seen or what have you. I would say that it’s clear that there are still some very silly and outdated ideas floating around. Here are a few.
One of these actually comes from one of our greatest lifters, Tommy Kono to whom I mean no disrespect. Critical of the European approach (based around the athletes training as professionals) he has long called for a return to what he calls Quality Training. During his personal heyday, he trained like the lifters of the day with at most a moderate amount of training on the Olympic lifts themselves (perhaps three times per week) while pushing up strength in basic strength lifts.
And certainly it worked for him during the time he was lifting. And that style of training rapidly disappeared as being productive at the highest levels. Note above that the minimum number of sessions per week is 5 (and you can be assured that the competition lifts are practiced at every one) and most do far more than that. The OL’s are too technical, too groovetastic at the highest levels to get by with that little practice on them. Simply, nobody trains like that anymore.
Many guys lose their snatch groove with more than a day or two away from the lift (many elite Ol’ers will not only lift the day before competition but do a light workout the morning of to get their groove going). While it’s debatable that American lifters should try to copy what the elite European block atletes are doing, returning to a system of training that worked 50 years ago is even more misguided.
Do It Conjugate Style/NEED MORE STRENGTH!!!
In what is now a rather famous series of articles (Milo Issues Vol 2/#3, Vol 3/#1 and Vol 4/#1), there is the suggestion by Louie Simmons to train effectively in the way he has instituted at Westside, arguing that American lifters are so far behind that they need to return to how the Russians were training in the 70’s and using what he interpreted the conjugate method as.
To whit he suggested training the competition lifts between 65-85% of max and building up maximum strength through special exercises, building work capacity and ‘not training the competition movements too often’. Effectively the exact opposite of how all successful teams of the day were training even in 1993. And effectively moving training backwards to a style that didn’t work for the Americans in the 50’s and 60’s and that only roughly represented what the Soviets were actually doing (they certainly weren’t only training the competition lifts a couple times per week).
He holds up several flawed examples of why this should work (such as that America rules powerlifting, a sport that the rest of the world didn’t give a shit about at the time, and hence Westside is the best. It’s the World Series thing again.) that I won’t go into but he’s basically falling into the same trap that our lifters in the 60’s and 70’s (and coaches today such as Mark Rippetoe who’s comments are what started this stupid series) are still falling into: thinking that our lifters need MORE STRENGTH and that that’s what is holding them back.
Certainly, some of our lifters may be weak (or weak in certain areas) but as I detailed elsewhere (and Charniga goes into extensive detail on), maximum and limit strength are at most minimally related to performance in the lifts. Strength needs to be kept at a certain level above competition performance to be sure but beyond that point, more strength not only doesn’t help but often hurts.
That idea was out of date in the 60’s when the Eastern Europeans started handing us our asses and it’s no less out of date now. Certainly the Chinese may be going heavier in assistance work than most have traditionally but how much of their training this comprises is hard to say (even the Soviets felt that up to 10% isometric and 10% eccentric work was useful back in the day). But that’s only in conjunction with constant work on the competition lifts.
Now, admittedly these articles were written in the 90’s and I have no idea if Simmons would make the same arguments. But it’s clear that style of training is even less relevant now with all elite competitors training in a fairly similar fashion which is constant work on the competition movements with everything else assisted that. So what are Americans actually doing today?
The Current State of American Olympic Lifting
Here again I’m in no real position to comment except generally. I asked Glenn about the current OTC program and was informed that it is certainly more like the current training of other country’s elite lifters than it may have been in the past. He states:
As far as how this compares to the rest of the world, it’s in the ballpark of what everyone else is doing. Obviously there are different “styles” of training and not everyone does exactly the same thing, but Zygmunt has worked with high level European athletes for 20-30 years and was an Olympian (for Poland) himself, and has imported the training system he used as the Polish national team coach, so the guys at the OTC are training at least similarly to the rest of the world.
Will this be sufficient to put one of our lifters in the medals before 2012 (Glenn joked that he hoped I finished this article series by 2012 so I wouldn’t have to rewrite it if we medalled)? Time will tell and hope springs eternally at the very last it appears that the training of American lifters, at least at the OTC is at least in the ballpark of the rest of the world. That’s at least progress from where it has been.
Beyond that I imagine that the long-standing gyms such as Calpains, Coffee’s and the rest are doing what they’ve been doing for quite some time. Which, at the risk of being blunt, hasn’t produced except perhaps to put athletes onto the Olympic team at the OTC. Which hasn’t produced to date. Whatever they have been doing hasn’t been working in terms of getting our lifters on the podium.
But that brings me to three more fairly recent developments in the climate of elite Ol training with the last one leading me into my final topic. In order of what I know about them.
Jon Broz and Average Broz Gymnasium
Jon Broz has a training facility in the Vegas area called Average Broz Gymnasium. I don’t know how much is really known about what he’s doing (he has at least one article on T-nation) but he does have at least one monster talent in Pat Mendes (you can see him on the BrozKnows Youtube channel). Broz seems to be using the Bulgarian style system and Mendes has certainly put up some big numbers (though in recent competition he’s apparently far off his best lifts). Time will tell and I don’t have much more to say about this.
Glenn Pendlay and California Strength
Coming out of Wichita Falls originally, Glenn (who I’d thank again for his invaluable feedback on this series) has set up an excellent situation for Ol’ers training with him at California strength. By that I mean that he’s set it up so that lifters training there also ‘work’ at the facility, allowing them to be able to make a living while being able to train full time (and presumably without some of the politics, etc. that goes on at the OTC). He seems to be using more of a Soviet style program with his lifters but you can check out his website for both regular blogs about their training along with video.
The facility also works with athletes from many other sports such as football, it’s not just pure OL’ing. This not only allows it to keep it’s doors open but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of those athletes at least consider OL’ing as a fallback or alternate sport. Glenn has been producing many of the US’s top lifters at the World level for now and this is certainly progress.
I mentioned in an earlier part of this series that Abadjaev currently resides in California and has started training people again, presumably with the idea that he can recreate the magic of his heyday with American lifters. There are a number of reasons that I doubt this can or will occur (primarily that he doesn’t have the numbers he needs to throw into the grinder and the lifters he will get will either be starting too old or not have the multi-year buildup to handle the full program) but he is in the country and the potential is there, I suppose. Mainly my mention of him acts as a bridge to my final (at last) topic.
Because among other topics that Abadjaev is exceedingly open about is this: to prepare an elite Olympic lifter, to be able to handle the training required to reach the highest levels or become a champion requires the use of drugs (I’ve mentioned repeatedly how foreign coaches are stunned that they are expected to prepare American lifters clean; the entire idea is just insane to them). And now it’s time to talk about the white elephant in the room.
Drugs and Olympic Lifting
The topic of drugs in elite sport is always contentious for reasons I discussed in a previous section of this series. Because while many sports fans take the idea that drugs are only used by guys who can’t succeed other ways, Americans take this to the mental level that we take anything, simply refusing to accept the reality of the situation. We believe that only the weak use drugs and that hard work should be able to overcome anything.
And the reality is that Olympic lifting has had a perennial drug problem. I already mentioned that I have it on good authority that American lifters were using the earliest anabolics and there’s simply no doubt at this point that the Soviet sports machine, GDR, Bulgaria and others systematically used drugs to support the training that was being done. And while I don’t know what sport has generated the most positive drug results in the Olympics, I’m guessing weightlifting is up there.
And before you argue that this is a leftover of the olden days consider that for Beijing both the Greek and Bulgarian teams got popped for drug use going into the games. Greece was able to pay the $500,000 fine and send it’s B-team but Bulgaria neither had the money nor the B-team and wasn’t able to compete (there have been other recent drug busts as well). Drug use has been part of the sport for most it’s existence and nothing has changed.
In fact, the whole drug issue led to a few interesting occurrences in the sport. Because in the early 90’s, due to pressure from the IOC to clean up it’s act, Ol’ing did crack down on drug use. And it appears to have gone down as evidenced by the fact that suddenly the top lifters or countries were about 5% off of the previous world records. They just couldn’t hit the numbers clean.
In fact, in a roundtable on the topic of Olympic lifting in the pages of Milo (Volume 2/#1), it was estimated that anabolics gave roughly a 5-10% benefit with at least half or more of that being retained even if the drugs were dropped. Which coincided exactly with what lifters were doing relative to the previous world records: they were all about 5% off their previous best. And it’s hard to see how guys had gotten worse as lifters from their previous performance.
If there was any clearer indication of the impact of the drugs on performance (if for no other reason than allowing lifters to recover from the training loads being used), that was it. It’s similar to the slower speeds and changed dynamics of the Tour De France this year; the top guys are all going slower and unless you want to believe that they backslid in terms of talent or training, the only logical conclusion is that they are using less drugs.
And this led to a problem because people watch the Olympics to see records being set and the fact was that lifters simply couldn’t reach the previous levels without drugs. And the solution that International Weightlifting came up with was to simply throw out the old weight classes and effectively ‘reset’ the world records to zero so that new records could be set again. And the situation rapidly returned to where it was before.
There are two other interesting facts that came out of this. The first is that arguably the US’s best recent finish in men’s weightlifting, Wes Barnett’s 4th in 1996, came during this period when, at least to a first approximation the competition was a lot cleaner than they had been. Because this is a place where US lifters do seem to be a massive disadvantage compared to the rest of the world and this can be traced directly to the US Weightlifting federation.
Because as one of it’s explicit goals for USA WL’ing is to make sure we don’t get dragged into the morass of drug use. And accordingly US lifters are some of the most tested of any athlete in the world, subject to constant random testing. And, simply, in the climate of international Ol’ing, given what we know other countries have been and are doing, how the records have been set and what the sport requires at the utmost levels, this is a huge roadblock. Simply, other countries have state sponsored drug programs to support professional athletes; our enthusiastic amateurs are expected to reach the top level clean.
And this has led to another simple suggestion, just give our lifters more drugs. But there is even indication that this wouldn’t be sufficient. For in the same issue of Milo further analysis of American results even in the ‘cleaner’ days of the early 1990’s showed that we were so far behind (roughly 10-20% behind the leaders depending on the weight class) that even adding the supposed 5% gain from drugs would have only moved us from bottom of the heap to middle of the heap. I don’t know where we stand now in terms of actual poundages relative to the top guys but I would be surprised if it’s changed much. We may have a drug gap in the sport but clearly it’s not all that’s holding us back.
Because at the end of the day, there is no singular factor that can be identified in all of this. Which brings me to endgame.
Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting
And believe it or not, that’s the end. I’ve covered too much information, this got stupid early on and I just rolled with it because I was having fun rambling about irrelevant shit and making jokes about the French and soccer. I’m not even sure I really answered the original question, at this point I’m not sure what the question was. Something about Olympic lifting. And clearly the sport of Olympic lifting in this country has problems.
But I don’t think that they are simple problems or that there is a simple solution. Frankly, the idea that there could be a simple solution to something this complicated sort of points to part of the problem: Americans are simple people, we want complicated problems to have simple, solitary fixes. It’s just this fundamental part of our nature. We want the problem to be simple so that we can fix it overnight. Just add _____ and suddenly the problem is solved. If only.
That’s fundamentally the reason I spent so much time trying to show how there is this vast interconnected web of events that both produces and destroys sports performance. All of the sociological, economical, ideological, genetic, physiological, etc, etc, etc, stuff that I covered when I looked at the countries and systems producing consistent results. Even the exceptions seeing how sports seemed to survive and thrive despite not having everything in place at first glance. What is needed to generate sports success isn’t simple, nor is what prevents it.
And what is wrong with the sport of Olympic lifting in the US isn’t simple. Certainly getting more athletes is a huge part of it, you need that to find the talent. And it has to be found young. That requires facilities, coaching, incentives, money, support, a federation that does more than nothing.
More than anything it requires interest. But that ties in with our country as a whole, the way America developed, the way our people think, the way our culture developed. It ties in with the sports that we watch and don’t watch, like and don’t like, get and don’t get, the sports we will and won’t invest money in.
And at a first glance, Olympic lifting has literally everything against it from both a competitor and athlete point of view. The nature of the sport, the nature of the lifts, the nature of the lifters, the existence of not only the big three and track and field but simpler, easier sports like powerlifting and bodybuilding which fulfill American’s weightlifting mentality to a far greater degree. They are hard to learn, few can teach them in the first place, they require specialized equipment, they don’t get you jacked or lean or strong. In a quick fix capitalist society they have little appeal to either the athlete pursuing sport for a better life or the gym rat looking to get more chicks or impress his buddies.
We have no heroes, our brief dominance of the sport is forgotten by all but the few who already pursue the sport and they aren’t the ones that need to be convinced. But getting America to care would require so many things to happen all at once. Winning for one. But even that might not be enough if the hero wasn’t the right kind of hero. Even with that, the nature of the sport just makes it intractable for most people. Olympic lifting literally addresses none of these issues and that’s not even considering the competition, countries who exist to throw people at the sport in immense numbers with immense support.
Our small group of elites have struggled against all of this and more, toiling with no support, no money, training at the handful of facilities run by coaches who truly do what they do for the love of the sport. Once these athletes, effectively enthusiastic amateurs, get far enough they can go to the OTC and get some support in a program that, historically not only hasn’t produced but may have done as much harm as good. Still they soldier on, truly for the love of the sport.
There are also the realities of the sport in terms of drug use, a place where the federation seems to be actively holding the lifters back with constant drug testing, preferring to stick their head in the sand regarding the realities of high level sport and Olympic lifting at the international level.
To ‘fix’ Olympic lifting you’d have to change all of this and more to make a dent in the problem which means solving the problems more or less all at once. Just throwing money at it won’t solve the problem. Just throwing drugs at it won’t solve the problem. Just building gyms won’t solve the problem. Just getting a bigger deadlift WILL NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM. Because the problem runs so much deeper than any of those simple things even if simple (and simplistic) minds can’t see that.
At the same time, there is some indication of change in the winds. Crossfit has done more in the last two years for the sport than lifters or the federation did in 40 years, the momentum is gaining and both the sport and interest in it is growing. Down the road this might increase the numbers sufficient to find the talent needed to change things. New coaches dedicated to the cutting edge of training such as John Broz and Glenn Pendlay may be the ones to find the talent, the hero that we need. Even the OTC seems to be working at a better level than it once did even if the rest of the sport is still a total mess.
So maybe things can change, at least they are moving forwards rather than standing still or moving backwards as they have been. I doubt it will happen soon but as other examples have shown, sometimes it only takes that single strike of lightening. The right athlete with the right story at the right time and maybe it turns itself around. Maybe.
Do I really think it will happen? If I’m honest, I’m not optimistic which is why the one thing I didn’t do was offer my own simple ‘fix’ to the problem. I simply don’t think one exists. And that’s not just a copout, that’s my honest opinion. There’s too much wrong with the sport in this country to fix it simply.
I also don’t buy the ‘anything is possible’ argument because it sounds like naive optimism to me, just fantasy level hopes and dreams by people with their heads in the clouds (it’s like that flying unicorn that shits gold I’ve been hoping to find). But this isn’t just me being a killjoy, this is what I hope was an objective look at the realities of the sport in this country lead me to conclude. I’m not writing it just to shit on people’s parades, it’s just the situation as I see it.
I’d love to be proven wrong.
Because I like the lifts, I know the lifts, I missed doing them in SLC, I miss doing them now. Having been involved in my share of niche sports over the years and knowing people who pursue Ol’ing with great zeal at varying levels, I’d love to see things change even if my inherent pessimism (I prefer to call it realism) tells me that it won’t any time soon. There’s just too much wrong with the sport on every level and it would all have to change at once for the sport to return to anything close to what it was.
And that, at long last, is Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting.
For an early roundtable (circa 1993) on many of the issues surrounding OL’ing (that still exist today), I’d point readers to Milo Issues Volume 2, Issue 1 through Volume 2, Issue 3 or so. The roundtable on the drug issue is in Volume 2/Issue 3.
The Effect of Testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs on the Progress of World Records in Weightlifting by Andrew Charniga, Jr. Another perspective on the drug issue in the sport of Olympic weightlifting.
Weightlifting Olympic Style and Championship Weightlifting by Tommy Kono. Both books talk about Quality Training as well as Kono’s belief about US Lifters Mentality of Failure in terms of their competition results.
Again, I’d thank Glenn Pendlay for answering my constant stupid questions throughout this.
And at the risk of crashing my server, comments will be opened on this piece. I’ve turned off moderation because I won’t have the time, energy nor interest to attend to them. Nor will I join in any debates on what I’ve written. I’ve said what I have to say and I’m as exhausted from writing this as you are reading it. End of line.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8
- Train Like an Athlete to Look Like an Athlete
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 6
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 3